Friday, November 11, 2022
Lauren joined the rest of the audience in a hearty round of applause as Wayne Evenocheck, her agent, stepped away from the podium. It was Starlight’s 20th Annual Writers’ Convention, something Lauren had managed to attend several times during her time with the publishing house. This year, she’d been invited as a speaker and not just another writer, and to everyone’s surprise, but most especially Wayne’s, she’d accepted the invitation and made the short trip to Baltimore’s Pier 5 Hotel for this year’s convention.
She was one of Starlight’s best-selling writers, though her fiction titles written under a well-guarded pen name had always outsold her biographies by a margin of six to one. Lauren Strayer, however, was not the writer that the paparazzi were interested in on this trip. To her utter delight, her presence had been almost entirely eclipsed by a swarthy mystery writer whose novel had been turned into a play and whose private life had been streaking across tabloid headlines since he began a love affair with the play’s blonde and very buxom leading lady — who also happened to be a soap opera diva. Though it was clear she would never again be treated as just another writer, Lauren had to admit it that felt good to let her guard down a bit, and talk freely with her colleagues about subjects that sparked her interest and fed her passion, all while the press hounded some other poor slob.
The atmosphere was one in which she could completely immerse herself: dozens of buzzing conversations, the crunch of snack foods, and the quiet hum of the laptops of those who couldn’t stop work, even for a moment.
Wayne stepped off the stage and took a seat next to Lauren in the second row of the large conference room, wiggling his fingers at several Secret Service agents who were doing their best to look unobtrusive as they stood along the wall. “Hiya, sweetheart,” he said in his typical, nasal New York accent. “I’m sorry I didn’t catch you before you spoke this morning. But umm…” He preened a little. “How’d I do?”
Lauren smiled broadly. “You did great.” She leaned to the side and bumped shoulders with her long-time friend and her gray eyes danced with mischief. “Didn’t you hear that applause?”
He sniffed and brushed an imaginary piece of lint from his shoulder. “Oh, I uh, I didn’t notice.”
A slender, pale eyebrow arched. “I can see that.” She glanced around at the milling crowd, recognizing most of the faces. “So how’d you get so popular all of a sudden, and wasn’t your goatee mostly gray at my wedding?”
Wayne clutched his chest in mock distress. “I’ve always been popular. Hell, I out-right discovered a third of these writers myself or rescued them from other rotten agents and brought them to Starlight. And that includes you.”
This, Lauren knew, was the absolute truth. Despite being a little old-fashioned in the way he did business, Wayne was the real deal and had gone the extra mile for her more than once.
“And my new girlfriend thought a brighter color beard would look dashing on me.”
“I’m crushed,” she said dryly. “And here I thought you were saving yourself for me.”
The heavyset man sighed and pulled a piece of peppermint candy from his slightly too-tight suit coat pocket. “That was before you married the hottie with an army and legs that go on for days.” He unwrapped the mint and began crunching loudly, wishing he was sucking on a lovely nicotine-loaded cigarette instead. “Now I’m too afraid to do anything other than bury my timeless, unrequited love.”
Lauren chuckled low in her throat, a deep gravelly sound. “She does have fantastic legs, doesn’t she?”
Wayne snorted. “Hell, yes.”
She narrowed her eyes at Wayne. “Do you really have a girlfriend?”
Lauren burst out laughing.
“I’m just vain and couldn’t come up with a better excuse. The truth is, I wanted to look good today. I’ve never been to a convention that had press coverage.”
“Well.” Lauren leaned a little closer to Wayne, wrinkling her nose as she poked her fingertips into the wiry bristles covering his chin. “It looks good,” she pronounced with a nod of her head.
His eyes filled with hope. “Really?”
“Hell, no.” She gave him a sympathetic smile to soften the blow.
Now it was Wayne’s turn to laugh.
Lauren focused her gaze a little harder. “It doesn’t look like a color that occurs in nature at all. You look like a deranged,” she winked, “but loveable Viking.”
“Hey,” he covered the flaming red hair with his hand. “The color was on sale! Besides,” he let his hand drop. “I’m washing it out tonight. You should have heard the whopper my secretary told me this morning when she saw it.”
His heavy brow creased unhappily as he looked at the pink mark that still marred Lauren’s forehead. “That must have smarted. I was worried about you, kiddo. I called the White House when I saw it on the news, but they just gave me the run-around.”
Lauren smiled gently at him, appreciating his kind heart more than he knew. “It happened so fast… I… well, it wasn’t so bad.”
Wayne shrugged good-naturedly. “Whatever you say. I would have cried like a little girl.”
“I think I was in too much of a stupor to cry.”
“I’m just glad you’re all right.”
“Me too.” Not wanting to continue with this depressing topic, Lauren gestured to the stage where several tables had been set up for the next panel of speakers. “You said you wanted me to autograph some books. How about we do it there? I’m on the next panel anyway.”
Wayne scratched his jaw. “Oh, um… did I say one box?”
Lauren voice dropped an octave in warning. “Wayne—”
“What’s six tiny boxes?”
Lauren crossed her arms, ready to do battle on very familiar turf. “Two boxes,” she offered.
“Three, and that’s my final offer. You’d have me sign until my hand fell off.”
“Calm down.” He patted Lauren’s hand. “Three boxes, just like I said all along.” He turned towards the stage. “Mike!” he barked to a young man who was performing a sound check on the microphone that Wayne had recently used and was wearing a large nametag. “Bring up four boxes of the First Lady’s books and put them on that table, would you? They’re in Room B and marked ‘Strayer.’”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “Why do I pay you again, Wayne? You never listen to me.”
“But I’m loveable.” He smiled unrepentantly, his chubby cheeks creasing deeply. “Don’t forget loveable.” He groaned a little as she leaned forward, and rose to his feet himself. “C’mon, let’s get you signing.”
Lauren motioned to two Secret Service agents, who, with a curt nod, ventured onstage to give it final security check. A third agent was dispatched with a metal/chemical/and biological agent detecting wand to run it over the boxes and books. It wasn’t long before Lauren and Wayne were waved forward to make their way to one of the long banquet-style tables.
“So how are things going with your new hot prospect?” Lauren asked as she took a seat and cracked open a bottle of water from an ice bucket in the center of the table.
“You mean Bobby?” Robert Rivera was Starlight’s new golden boy and his novel-turned-play was set to open in less than a week.
Lauren dug around in her laptop case until she emerged with her wire-rimmed glasses and carefully put them on. “Who else?”
Wayne grabbed a handful of Lauren’s last biography out of its box and passed them over to her along with a pen. “I’ll tell you, it’s been wild. And here I thought things were crazy with you.”
Lauren snorted as she penned her name on the cover page. “It’s hard to imagine anyone surpassing my media circus.” She started a pile with the signed book, then reached for another.
“Can you stay for tonight’s dinner? I’d love a beautiful escort.” Wayne’s eyebrows bounced as he scooted his chair a little closer to Lauren’s so that Mike could pass behind them.
The neatly dressed intern and general gopher from Starlight Publishing began distributing note pads and pencils at the tables.
“Sorry.” Affectionately, Lauren bumped shoulders with the bulky man. “I’m due back in Washington by 6 to be present when Devlyn becomes the first person ever to have her blood taken for the DNA Registration Act.” She kept her voice light and soft, not wanting to let on how uncomfortable events like that made her.
Wayne didn’t miss the hesitancy in Lauren’s normally vibrant voice. He raised his eyebrows and leaned close, covertly glancing around to make sure they were alone. And except for a few strategically placed agents who had taken up places around the stage, they were. “What about you, kid? Are they going to poke you?” He knew how his young client felt about needles.
“No,” Lauren said quietly, her relief palpable. “I’ll just be there for the show.”
“So why the long face?”
Lauren finished writing her name and her gaze flicked around to make certain Mike was long gone before she spoke. She grabbed another book. “Because I disagree with the entire thing.”
Wayne blinked. “And the President knows this?”
“Sure.” Lauren shrugged a sweater-clad shoulder. “I’m allowed my own opinion, Wayne.” She hesitated over a book whose cover was creased. With a wrinkled nose, she handed it back to Wayne, who nodded his agreement and put it in separate pile.
“So why participate in a publicity stunt at all then?” he questioned curiously, well aware of Lauren’s headstrong tendencies and, frankly, surprised that she would be present to promote something she didn’t believe in. “Getting you to do any promotion at all has been hell. And God knows I tried.”
Lauren sighed. Wayne’s question was a very valid one. Fortunately, however, she had a couple of good answers. “First, I’m not married to you.”
“True.” She winked. “Second, the bill is already law. Nothing short of repealing it can undo it now, and my kicking up a fuss would only undermine the people whose job it is to enforce and implement it.” She gave him a half smile, trying not to cringe at the hollow sound of her words. “How did that sound?”
“Pretty good,” Wayne allowed, moving his head from side to side. “A few more days’ practice and I’ll actually begin to believe you believe it. No confusing who the politician in your family is.”
Lauren chuckled. “I do believe that. I just don’t like it. But here’s the bottom line: I support my wife, even when we disagree. And this legislation is important to her. I respect that, and her, and if that means that I have to make nice for the cameras every once in a while, then so be it. Ugh!” She held up Wayne’s pen and shook it. “Couldn’t you have stolen a pen from your bank that actually worked?”
Wayne grumbled as he fished another pen out of his pocket. “Here.” He passed it over. “I can’t believe the government not only wants to ban my precious smokes, but now it wants my blood, even if it is just a drop.” He whimpered at the mere thought of having to quit smoking. “Next they’ll outlaw coffee, sex, and good books, and then we all might as well be dead.”
Lauren rolled her eyes at her agent's flare for drama. “Wayne, the DNA registration is voluntary unless you get arrested.”
“It’s voluntary now,” he clarified. “The next logical step is registering everyone at birth, and then everyone period. Besides, do you have any idea how many unpaid parking tickets I have? Arrest is a serious possibility in my future.”
“You could pay the tickets,” Lauren said reasonably, more preoccupied by trying to make her signature legible with a second cheap pen than by their conversation.
Wayne visibly scoffed at the ridiculous idea. “I dunno. There’s just something that makes me uncomfortable about the entire thing. I mean, I trust our current president, but what about the next bozo who gets her job?”
For testing purposes, and via a gallery in the back of the room, Mike switched on the microphones that had been placed in front of each panelist’s seat.
Lauren nodded, agreeing completely. Devlyn was far more moderate than many members of her own party and certainly most Republicans. Who knew what some future administration might use the samples for? Cloning? Behavior modification through gene therapy? It was, she readily admitted, startlingly easy for her creative mind to spin out of control when it came to manufacturing chilling scenarios. Still, the possibilities for abuse were no joke. "The DNA Registration Act is unreasonable and invasive, and I admit that the thought of Big Brother wanting my blood makes me shiver."
Wayne’s eyes suddenly formed twin moons as Lauren’s words rang out around the large room and all eyes, including several news cameras that were busy interviewing Bobby Rivera, trained themselves on the stage.
Lauren’s mouth sagged as a thunderous silence roared in her ears and the blood drained from her face.
Wayne quickly reached down and yanked the cord from the microphone, vowing to kill Mike the first chance he got.
Lauren lifted one of her books and held it in front of her face as though she was reading it, but with her peripheral vision she could still see several Secret Service agents doing their best not to blanch. “Oh, my fucking God,” she muttered under her breath, her eyes closing. “Please tell me what I think just happened did not happen. Please, Wayne.”
Wayne let out a slow, speculative breath. “That depends on whether you think you let the entire room, including that news crew who was taping live, know that you think the President’s pet project is crap.”
Lauren lowered the book in her hands, to see the news crew falling over themselves to scramble out of the room. Every other member of the press was now on his or her cell phone, sharing the joy. “I uh…” She swallowed hard. “I think I need to call the White House.”
“And then escape the country?”
Lauren cringed, her mind reeling over what she’d just done. “Oh, yeah.”
Dev sat at her desk in the Oval Office with her chin resting on steepled fingers. Her eyes closed momentarily. “She said what?”
The words were uttered so softly, David wasn’t quite sure what Dev had asked. He loosened his tie and crossed the room to take a seat in front of the desk. “What was that, Dev?”
Her jaw worked and this time she spoke with a slightly louder voice. “I want you to repeat exactly what she said.”
David felt a twinge in his stomach. Dev was being eerily quiet and it was nothing short of unnerving. He repeated Lauren’s quoted statement that had already hit the television, radio, and wire services.
Dev let out a shaky breath and made her way to the window. She stood alongside Old Glory, her dark gray pantsuit looking grim next to the flag’s bold colors, and presented David with her back. Her shoulders were rigid as she took a silent sip of coffee.
It didn’t take long for David to be unable to stand the stillness in the room or the thick, cloying tension that hung in the air. “You need to issue a statement to the press. We’ve already got data from an unscientific poll showing support for DNA registrations has dropped from 76 to 38 percent.”
Devlyn could feel frustration laced with hurt welling up within her. Her nostrils flared and her grip on her mug increased until her knuckles stood out in vivid relief against the hot, bright red ceramic.
Outside Dev’s office, Lauren arrived at the same time as Press Secretary Allen, Beth, and her new assistant Carol. They were all panting from their dashes inside the building, and Lauren could feel a bead of perspiration at the nape of her neck as it began slowly trickling down her back.
Liza and Jane were quietly conferring with each other at the head secretary’s desk.
Beth glanced around, expecting to see David waiting for them. “Okay,” she gave up looking. “We’re here.” In a gesture of silent support, she squeezed Lauren’s shoulder.
Lauren reached up and patted Beth’s hand affectionately. Message received.
“Where’s the meeting?” Beth asked, still slightly breathless. She passed Jane her briefcase and the older woman locked it in a cabinet behind her desk. Then she slipped out of her coat and gathered the other women’s coats to hang up.
Everyone looked at Liza, who merely threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know yet. Chief of Staff McMillian is briefing the President on the situation now.”
Lauren licked her lips nervously. “Just now?” She’d called the White House over an hour ago to give them as much notice as possible on what was sure to be a firestorm in the press.
“The President was in a meeting with the Secretary of Commerce until five minutes ago, ma’am. She’d asked not to be disturbed.”
“That’s not good,” Lauren mumbled, cursing her indiscretion for the thousandth time and knowing she’d get down on her knees and beg if she could only turn back the hands of time.
Beth couldn’t help but agree. Dev usually needed some time to process bad news before being at her most effective. At first, the President was likely to be quiet and broody, followed quickly by anger.
Everyone jumped at the sound of a loud crash and the raised but indistinguishable voices coming from inside the Oval Office. But no one made a move towards the door.
“Son of a bitch!” In disgust, Dev turned away from her coffee-stained wall and the now decapitated bust of George W. Bush.
“I can’t believe she did that, David,” she seethed. “You know how much time, planning, and money has gone into the DNA Registration campaign so that people will feel comfortable volunteering a sample. In one single sentence she’s set us back months!”
David ran a hand through his hair. "It's not that bad."
"The hell it's not!” Dev stalked over to her seat and sat down, eyeing her pencil holder with evil intent.
David’s eyes widened and he debated whether it was safe to sit this close to his friend.
Dev caught the look and despite the throbbing vein that was very visible in the center of her forehead quirked a weak grin at her friend. “Don’t worry. You’re safe. This is just me trying not to repress my feelings by expressing them freely.”
David recognized therapist-speak when he heard it, and his eyes widened further. “My God. Were you ever repressed when it came to expressing your anger?”
Dev glared at him. “Not as far as I’m concerned. Either way, it doesn’t appear that I’m repressed anymore, does it!”
“Does breaking things help?” David asked carefully, willing to see that Devlyn had plenty of mugs at her disposal if smashing really helped her deal with stress.
A scowl firmly planted itself on Dev’s face. “I don’t think so.” To test her theory she snatched a pencil from the holder and viciously snapped it in half. She sighed. “Nope, not helping.”
David got up and circled the desk.
Dev stood up and gratefully allowed her dear friend to pull her into a heartfelt hug. It was a rare moment of tactile comfort between them, despite the close-knit nature of their friendship. The dark-haired woman pulled away just enough to rest her forehead on David’s broad shoulder. She soaked in the understanding that was so freely given that it oftentimes was under-appreciated.
"Lauren was really upset when she called,” David said. “She apologized over and over again and she swore she’d explain.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, David. But, Christ, how could she be so careless?”
Dev was calming down quickly, and David let out a relieved breath, well aware that that throbbing vein in her forehead could not bode well for her high blood pressure.
Soothingly, he rubbed his hand in small circles on Devlyn’s back, feeling the cool silk of her blouse. "Let me tell you, pal, if this is the worst thing she says in public while you’re in office, you can consider yourself lucky."
Dev snorted. This, she was forced to acknowledge, was very true.
David smiled. “Besides, don’t you remember when—?”
Dev’s head jerked up. “Don’t you dare say it,” she threatened. But there was little heat behind the words. “I was a 23-year-old Ohio State representative who didn’t know my head from my arse! Lauren is a mature woman who has been living in the White House for the past two years. I hold her to a higher standard.”
“Okay, okay,” David conceded, lifting his hands in supplication. “Be that as it may, we still have to deal with things.”
Dev nodded and took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "You're right. But I need to talk to my wife before we decide what to do." Dev surprised David by dropping a quick kiss on his cheek before pressing the intercom button and waiting for Jane to answer. “Who’s out there waiting for David to finish breaking the news, Jane?”
Jane rattled off a list of people, and Dev’s eyebrows disappeared behind her bangs. She turned to David. “The gang’s all here.”
David straightened his tie and buttoned his jacket as Dev grabbed her jacket off the rack near her desk and shrugged into it with her friend’s help. Then she eased back into her leather chair. “Jane, could you please send the First Lady in alone? And have someone bring Michael Oaks over to join the party. I’ll be speaking to the group shortly.”
“Yes, Madam President.”
The Oval Office door opened, and a shamefaced Lauren padded into the room. She moved with all the enthusiasm and speed of a participant in the Battaan Death March.
David slipped out of the room behind her, whispering a wan “Good luck” as he went.
After he closed the heavy wooden door, Lauren took her place in the hot-seat in front of Dev’s desk. With an audible gulp, she folded her hands in her lap and waited.
They stared at each other in silence for a solid minute before Devlyn arched an eyebrow and asked, “Aren’t you going to say hello to Big Brother?"
Lauren cringed, and her apology exploded from within her. “Oh, God, I am so, so sorry!"
The smaller woman was nearly in tears, and Dev felt a good part of her anger deflate in the face of her partner’s obvious, heartfelt regret.
Lauren lay her head on Devlyn’s desk and turned it sideways, exposing her neck. Half joking she said, “Here, cut if off. Just make it quick.”
“Sit up, you nut.” Dev crossed her arms in front of her. “I’m not going to chop off your head… though it was touch and go about 10 minutes ago.”
Lauren’s gaze strayed to George W. sans his head. “Thank goodness I was hiding in the outer office 10 minutes ago.”
Dev followed Lauren’s eyes and shrugged dismissively. “I actually think it’s much improved now,” she said seriously, drawing a hesitant smile from Lauren.
The President uncrossed her arms and leaned forward, pinning Lauren with an intense but not unkind stare. “What the hell happened? I thought you were in Baltimore to attend a writers’ conference, not toss a grenade into my campaign to encourage voluntary registration.” She leaned forward a little further, reaching out and caressing Lauren’s cheek to take the sting from her words. “Hmm?”
Lauren’s eyes closed at the gentle touch. "I can’t think of anything to say but how sorry I am. The microphones were off and Wayne and I were alone on stage. We were just talking. DNA registration came up in our conversation, and without my knowing it, someone switched on my microphone just in time to blast my poorly articulated opinion to the entire room.” She sighed, her hands shaping fists. "I- I felt comfortable with Wayne. The room was filled with other writers and people I know. I didn’t feel like I had to be on guard every single damn second!” Lauren’s expression hardened. “I was wrong.”
“I don’t want you to be paranoid, honey. But some bastard is always going to be lurking, waiting for you to slip up so they can crush you like a roach in their next article or newscast. “
Lauren blinked. “No paranoia there.”
“Tell me it’s not true,” Dev challenged.
Lauren opened her mouth, then closed it quickly, gracefully accepting defeat.
“You’ve got to make it harder for them to do that to you than you did today, Lauren!"
Her cheeks colored. “I know.”
The older woman reached out for Lauren’s hand and her eyebrows furrowed at the unpleasant sensation of cool clammy skin. Despite her own anger, Dev found it virtually impossible to let her beloved friend continue to twist in the wind. Her gaze softened. “I’m angry, yes. But I accept your apology, sweetheart. I know you wouldn’t have done something like that on purpose.”
Lauren looked as though she might pass out from relief. “Thank God you know that. I would never intentionally torpedo something you’re involved in just because we disagree.”
“I know you wouldn’t, and you haven’t torpedoed anything.” Dev relaxed back in her chair. “But you’ve got to be more careful than you were today, Lauren. What you said made me look bad in a lot of peoples’ eyes. If I can’t convince you of something I feel so strongly about, then you must know some big bad government secret that they don’t, right?”
“Damn.” Lauren let out a breath that ended in a moan. “I’ve made a royal mess of things.” She rubbed her temple with irritated fingers. “This has been the worst afternoon in forever.”
Dev nodded. “I’ve had better.”
“Have we made up yet?” Lauren asked hopefully, willing to apologize for as long as it took, but desperately in need of something else in the meantime.
Dev smiled a little. “I’d say so.”
“Then can I have a hug? I could really use it.”
“Me, too. C’mere.”
It took Lauren only a few heartbeats to get around the long desk and find safe haven in strong arms. She’d been sick to her stomach the entire way back from Baltimore and that sinking sensation was only now beginning to ease. “I love you,” she whispered.
Dev tightened her hold on the younger woman. “I love you, too.” She kissed the top of Lauren’s head. “It’s time to call in the troops.”
“Should I prepare to grovel? Press Secretary Allen looked as though she wanted to strangle me, and David barely looked at me at all as he flew out of here.”
“They’ll live,” Dev said flatly. “Part of their job is dealing with things like this. I take it everyone is up to speed on exactly what happened in Baltimore?” Upon Lauren’s nod, Dev pushed the intercom button on her desk. “Send everyone in, Jane. And you come too, please.”
“Yes, Madam President,” Jane answered dutifully, her voice still hanging in the air when the office door opened.
Wordlessly, the staffers trooped in and circled Dev and Lauren.
“Okay,” Dev began. “The First Lady has explained what happened to my satisfaction.” Her voice dropped an octave. “It’s over now, people. She knows she made a mistake and I don’t want to hear anything more about how she could have done it or why she was careless.”
Unseen by Devlyn, Michael Oaks rolled his dark eyes.
“Dev—” Lauren began to protest, willing to take her medicine, even if it meant eating a serious portion of crow. After all, Dev was right about her lack of care. And now it would cost everyone.
“Assigning blame when you’ve already taken responsibility for your error only wastes time,” Dev said for everyone else’s benefit as much as Lauren’s. “And that’s the last thing we need. Besides,” she paused, then met David’s gaze with her own, blue eyes not revealing a hidden twinkle, “as my good friend David reminded me, I’ve, well… there’s been a time or two where I said something I wished I hadn’t.”
David and Beth looked at each other, both recalling what was easily Devlyn’s most embarrassing political moment. As a freshman Ohio State representative, she had angrily shot off her mouth within range of a taping film crew, and the results remained in the papers for weeks, giving Devlyn her very first national exposure. The McMillians drew in a deep breath and chorused Dev’s near historic quote about a rival politician, “I'm not going to be bullied by an illiterate hilljack with the morals of a pimp!”
Dev narrowed her eyes. “You just had to say it, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Madam President,” they both answered soberly, having done exactly what Devlyn had wanted. And they knew it. Dev mentioning the much-hated “hilljack incident,” as the press had dubbed it, was tacit permission for David and Beth to use the tale for good purpose. Lauren had made great strides in the past year, but she would misstep many times on her journey as First Lady. The support that she received now would go a long in making her more confident but more savvy in public in future.
Lauren, however, wasn’t the least bit shocked at the story. Sometimes, she mused, everyone seemed to forget that she was trailing around after Devlyn and conducting endless research and interviews for a reason. Other than enjoying the company. Lauren probably knew more about the President than all but a handful of people on the planet. And she loved that quote. “I hate to tell you, Devlyn, but your biography wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the infamous ‘hilljack incident.’" She chanced a tenuous grin at her partner. “Sorry.”
“That’s all right,” Dev replied calmly. “Your quote from today will surely be in the biography that someone is undoubtedly writing about you.”
Lauren’s face shifted into a scowl.
Dev chuckled evilly. “Welcome to my world.” Then she slapped her hands on her thighs and focused on her press secretary. It was time to get back to business. She grabbed David’s wrist and lifted it so she could look at his watch, nodding a little to herself. “We need a press conference before our lovely friends in the press put their nightly news stories to bed. You’ve got 30 minutes. Here’s my statement, and Sharon, quote me on this—”
Sharon’s eyes widened and she fumbled with the pad of paper in her hands until Liza magically produced a micro-recorder and handed it to the woman. A beaming smile was Dev’s ever-ready assistant’s reward.
Dev leaned against her desk as she spoke. “Quote. The First Lady is a bright, talented woman who has a right to her own opinions just like the rest of us. On occasion, those opinions differ from mine, which is fine by me. She is my partner, not a yes-man, and I value the different perspective she might bring to any issue. However, the First Lady’s comments about DNA registration do not signal a lack of support for the legislation,” she paused and looked directly at Lauren, “but rather a genuine concern about the nature and amount of government intrusion into the lives of its citizenry. This is a concern this administration is not only sensitive to but shares. End quote.” Dev winked at the impressed look on her wife’s face.
Sharon stopped the recording.
“Wow,” Lauren told Dev seriously.
“That works, Madam President,” David commented thoughtfully.
“How do we demonstrate that we’re serious about concerns like Lauren’s?” Sharon followed up, making a few notations on her notepad.
“After you read my quote, release some of the crime statistics that show how helpful DNA records will be and follow them up by showing our successes in reduction of violent crime and in funding for state and local law enforcement. Show the public that they’ll be getting something valuable in return for giving up those two drops of blood. Also outline the privacy safeguards that will be in place.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sharon smiled and stuck her pencil behind her ear, her short natural cut Afro holding it in place.
“Liza,” Dev trained her eyes on her tall assistant. “Tonight’s press event was going to be held at George Washington University Hospital and we were expecting minimal press coverage, correct?”
Liza flew through the screens of her electronic organizer at the speed of light, the flashing lights reflecting in her eyes. “The room capacity is 50 and no additional electrical hookups were requested. That puts expected attendance at no more than eight camera crews.”
Dev made a face. “That won’t work. Everyone will want to be there to see if Lauren bothers to show up.” She shot a quick questioning glance at Lauren, who nodded vigorously.
“I’ll be there,” the blonde assured.
“Good.” Dev’s eyes suddenly widened as she had a thought. “You won’t pass out will you?”
“One chair for the First Lady,” Liza added to her list.
“Okay,” David jumped in, “let’s move the press event here. There’s more room and everything is set up. We might as well milk the publicity.”
Sharon batted her eyelashes at David. “A man after my own heart.”
Dev considered David’s suggestion. “That works. And get on the phone to Party Chairman Jordon. If we’re going to get some good exposure I want some willing volunteers from both Houses over here and ready to show their support.” She pinned David with a serious glare. “Stress the word 'volunteers.' I don’t want anyone here who is the least bit uncomfortable or ambivalent. I won’t have this blowing up in our faces later.”
“Consider it done. In fact, I’ve had a hankering to get my finger pricked all day.”
Dev gave his shoulder a hearty pat. “Good man. Sharon?”
“Yes, Madam President?”
“The usual spin doctors?”
“Will be there with bells on, armed with all the stats.”
Dev exhaled. “Mr. Oaks?”
Michael lifted his jaw. “Ready, Madam President.”
“When are Lauren and I scheduled for our next social appearance in public?”
“Eight days from now,” he answered easily. “An Emancipation Party fundraiser in Georgetown. Semi-formal.”
Dev made a face. “Not soon enough.” She turned to Lauren. “Would you like to go on a date with me so the world can rest assured that you really like me?”
Lauren bit her lip and nodded. “Anywhere.”
“Someplace romantic,” Dev added, still looking at Lauren. “We might as well kill two birds with one stone.
Michael was too busy mentally sorting through possibilities to roll his eyes again. But Dev’s words filled the room with faces wreathed in indulgent grins.
“That leaves the First Lady,” Dev said.
Lauren felt her stomach jump into her throat. “Yes?”
Dev pointed to the evidence of her mini-temper tantrum. “You owe the administration reimbursement for one very large coffee mug.”
“I’ll buy a half dozen,” Lauren promised.
Michael sniffed. “What about the bust of George W. Bush?” he pointed out, visibly angry at the defilement of one of his political heroes.
“You’re absolutely right, Mr. Oaks,” Dev said seriously. “Lauren?”
Lauren blanched. God only knew how expensive that statue was. “Yes, Devlyn?”
“We’ll call it even for the coffee mug.” Dev grinned as Michael’s face flushed with anger. “That’s it, people,” she finished. “Go to it.”
With a round of murmured goodbyes the room quickly cleared, leaving Lauren and Dev alone.
Lauren blinked a few times, shaking her head as if to clear it. “All that after one sentence from me?” She blew her bangs out of her face and joined Dev on the corner of the desk. “Wow. I don’t think I’ll ever speak again.”
Dev chuckled. “Why don’t I believe that statement?”
Lauren backhanded her spouse lightly on the shoulder. “Because you aren’t that lucky?”
Dev’s chuckle turned into a full laugh that was music to Lauren’s ears.
Thursday, November 24, 2022
Howard Strayer stood outside Frank and Janet Marlowe’s front door, the large box that had traveled with him from Tennessee resting near his feet. Unhappily, he glanced down at it, wondering now if his rather impulsive gesture had been a foolish idea. Then he turned so his gaze could travel down the long, tree-lined driveway. He caught sight of two Secret Service agents drinking steaming cups of coffee, their eyes alert and scanning the property as they walked the perimeter. Maybe this entire trip was a mistake.
He lifted his hand to knock, but, before his knuckles struck wood, the door swung open. Howard blinked a couple of times, a little overwhelmed by Devlyn’s sudden and unexpected presence.
The President’s hair hung loose over her shoulders, and she was wearing a pair of comfortable-looking Levis, an oversized navy-colored cable-knit sweater and nothing on her feet but a pair of thick, white sweat socks. It was the most casual Howard had ever seen the woman, and it took a moment for his brain to reconcile the image before him with the buttoned-up professional he’d seen on television so many times.
Just before he switched the channel.
Dev smiled what she hoped was a warm greeting. “Won’t you come in?”
Howard merely grunted and grabbed the box at his feet, before entering a well-lit foyer. He glanced around at the expensive furnishings and polished brass scattered throughout the large entry. “I… um… expected a servant to open the door.”
Dev arched an eyebrow as she reached out and took his coat. She opened a small closet and pulled out a hanger. “My parents have a housekeeper, Mr. Strayer. But she’s busy working on dinner, so I’m on door duty.” Not quite true. A set of gates secured her parents’ property, and when Howard had passed through the security check at the main gate, she’d been notified by cell phone of his arrival. She’d insisted that an agent merely escort him up the walk, rather than inside. She could tell by the way his eyes followed the agents that they made him uncomfortable.
Howard rocked back on his heels, his eyes flicking from surface to surface. “Nice place.”
“And, I suppose…” He drew in a deep breath and grudgingly pushed ahead. “I suppose you should call me Howard.”
This time Dev’s smile was warmer. She’d win over this curmudgeon of a southern plumber if it took 20 years. She just hoped that, for Lauren’s sake, she could manage it a little sooner. “Thank you. And you could call me Dev?” She lifted her eyebrows in question, very well aware that he tended not to address her at all. After her and Lauren’s wedding ceremony, he’d given his daughter a quick goodbye hug and disappeared before the reception could begin.
“All right,” he said slowly.
“Good.” Curious, Dev glanced down. “What’s in the box?”
Howard was tempted to say “none of your business,” but he bit back his natural impulse and shrugged. “Nothing much. Some old stuff for Lauri.”
Janet entered the foyer, carrying a mug of hot coffee. “Hello, Howard.”
The man visibly relaxed.
Janet smiled and passed over the cup. “We’re so pleased that you could come.”
“Thank you for having me,” Howard answered politely, causing Dev to blink.
Then Frank Marlowe strode into the room. “Howard.” He extended his hand and the men exchanged firm handshakes. “I hope you’re hungry. There’s enough food here for an army.”
Dev watched in amazement as Howard’s demeanor relaxed even further, the look on his face becoming almost placid.
“I’m starved. I’d always heard you got food on planes.” He’d driven up for the wedding, but his truck was acting up and he decided to splurge on a plane ticket this time out. "There wasn’t even a measly bag of peanuts on my flight, that’s for dam—” His gaze shot to Janet, and to Dev’s amazement, he blushed. “Excuse me, ma’am, I meant to say for darn sure.”
Frank chuckled and clasped Howard’s shoulder. “No harm done. Janet’s been known to make sailors blush herself.”
“Frank!” Janet gasped, but her eyes were merry and everyone, even Howard, seemed to know that’s as far as she’d take her token protest.
“Traveling always makes me hungry,” Frank continued. “And the day I’ll pay $13.50 for a cheese sandwich in the airport is the day I bare my butt on Main Street!”
Howard snorted his agreement, finding it very easy to like Frank, despite the fact that he was very aware of their different social classes. “I’d starve first.” He stuffed his hands in the pocket of his trousers, feeling a lot better about being here. When the silence in the room lengthened, he cast about for something to say. “So… um… Frank. I hear you have horses here?”
Frank’s ears perked up. “I have a half dozen beauties,” he said proudly, rocking back on his booted heels and suddenly reminding Howard strongly of Frank’s daughter. “Would you like to see them?”
He nodded. “I’ve bet on them plenty, but never touched one in person.” He half smiled. “Too much of a city rat, I guess.”
“You’ll need a coat,” Frank advised. “And you might as well take off that necktie.” He gestured to the sedate blue tie circling Howard’s thick throat. “We don’t stand on ceremony as you can see.” He gestured at his neatly pressed but casual shirt. “C’mon, my jacket’s on the back porch.”
Everyone looked at Dev, who belatedly sprang into action and retrieved Howard’s heavy jacket from the closet.
“Much obliged,” Howard told her absently, already following Frank out of the foyer and unbuttoning the top button of his shirt. He suddenly stopped and looked a little unsure of himself. He addressed Dev. “You’ll tell Lauren—”
“I’ll tell her you’re here,” Devlyn assured. When the men were gone, she gazed at her mother in wonder. “What the hell just happened?”
“What do you mean?” Janet moved Howard’s box away from the front door and towards the wall so no one would trip over it.
“You all are friends?”
Janet nibbled her lower lip. “'Friends' may be a little strong, Dev. But we’re in-laws and we’re friendly. We’ve spoken by phone a few times since the wedding. As a matter of fact, Frank and I called him after Lauren’s accident.” She shook her head sadly. “He saw the reports on television before anyone knew whether she was all right. I think that took five years off the man’s life.”
“Buh…” Dev let out a frustrated breath. “He didn’t even call her afterwards! He only sent flowers and a card.”
Janet’s brows contracted. “Surely you don’t think that’s because he doesn’t care about her welfare?”
A guilty look swept across Dev’s face. “Well—”
“Devlyn!” Janet’s voice took on a scolding edge. “You should know better than that. Lauren does. Was she upset by the card instead of a call?”
Dev frowned. “No. I guess not.” She plucked her mother’s coffee cup from her hands and stole a deep drink. “Though I was plenty pissed,” she murmured against the cup, wincing as her thievery resulted in a burnt tongue.
“Mmm.” Janet took a step closer to her daughter. “I know that Howard Strayer wasn’t the father you had, and Lord knows Lauren didn’t deserve any less. But the man has his own ways, just like you and I do. And he’s truly trying, or he wouldn’t be here at all.”
Dev pursed her lips. “True.”
Janet’s gaze softened. “Don’t be so hard on the man, dear, and stop trying so hard yourself. He’s not going to meet your expectations for a long time, if ever. But I do believe, eventually, he’ll come around where you’re concerned.”
A slender dark brow lifted. “After he gets over the fact that I’ve lured his daughter into an unnatural, immoral lifestyle in addition to subjecting her to the vile, twisted world of politics?”
Janet’s blue eyes sparked with good humor. “I don’t recall him using the word ‘vile.’”
Dev whimpered as she wrapped her arm around the smaller woman’s narrow but sturdy shoulders. “I just want her to be happy, Mom.”
Janet eased her own arm around Dev’s waist and began guiding her back into the family room, where Lauren, the McMillians and the kids were all draped across various pieces of furniture, either asleep or watching football. “Who have you been living with, dear? That girl curled up on the sofa in there is happy.”
Dev groaned inwardly. “I know. But—”
“But you want the best for her and you want it all yesterday?” Janet quipped, laughing slightly as Devlyn’s mouth clicked shut.
Dev scowled as they moved through the hallway and descended a set of stairs. “You make me sound so unreasonable. I’m a very reasonable person, I’ll have you know. I’ve been known to be patient and reasonable for entire minutes at a time!”
Janet rolled her eyes at her daughter, before a knowing smile overtook her face. She stopped their progress and looked up into her daughter’s eyes. “I make you sound like a woman in love,” she said softly, her heart near bursting. “And love has nothing to do with reason.” She had to stand on her tiptoes to kiss Dev’s cheek. “I couldn’t be happier for you, Devil.”
Dev wrapped long arms around her mother and closed her eyes, careful not to spill the coffee. “Thanks, Mom,” she said, surprised by the sudden rush of emotion. There was nothing like the holidays to bring out the mushball in the Marlowe clan. “Me, too.” She sighed happily. Me, too.
The food was long gone and everyone sat around in the family room with bloated bellies, too full to even think about moving. Everyone except the children, that is, who were still buzzing around the room on what appeared to be an electric high.
David groaned, too stuffed to do more than point weakly at the boys, who were rolling around in the corner, tickling each other. “Ever wonder what’s wrong with them?” The adults in the room, except for Howard, all laughed.
“It is amazing,” Beth agreed. “I know for a fact that Aaron consumed an entire turkey leg.” She paused to yawn, wishing she’d worn pants with an elastic waist. “And Christopher had a slice from each of the three pies. Shouldn’t they be passed out somewhere?” She sighed, sure that if she opened her mouth, her last bite of mashed potatoes would still be visible in the back of her throat. She’d regretted that final forkful the instant it hit her tongue, when she realized it had no place to go.
Dev chuckled. “The little fiends are immune to being too full. Food jazzes them up and it takes them an hour to come down off the energy high.”
“It’s just not fair,” Frank said, thinking fondly of his own youth and those 33-inch waist jeans he used to be able to buy and actually button.
“Well,” Howard slapped his hands down on both of his knees and stood up. “I need to walk this off.” He gaze swung to Lauren, who was sitting in a turkey-induced catatonic state in front of the fireplace. “Would you like to join me, Lauren?”
Lauren’s head jerked up at the mention of her name. She had to think for a second to recall what he’d said. “You want me to walk with you?”
Howard shrugged one shoulder, not liking that all eyes in the room were now on him. “I don’t know my way around and don’t relish taking a bullet between the eyes from one of those agents.”
“They won’t shoot us,” Aaron piped up, moving alongside his stepmother. “We’re the good guys.”
Howard’s face colored. “Of course not, boy. I… didn’t.” He lifted one hand and then helplessly let it fall.
“He was only teasing,” Lauren explained to Aaron, ruffling his corn-yellow hair.
Howard looked relieved. “That’s right.”
David lifted his cell phone. “I’ll let them know you’ll be on the path to the cabin, yes?”
Lauren nodded, a little nervous at the prospect of being alone with her father. She and Dev exchanged curious looks. “That’s a pretty walk,” she agreed slowly, then turned back to her father. “Daddy?”
He shrugged again. “Fine by me.”
“Can I come?” Ashley asked, and the boys quickly followed suit.
Lauren gave Devlyn a questioning look and the President tossed the ball back in her court with a gentle tilt of her head. “Sure, kids. But get your coats.”
A wry smile twitched at Howard’s lips as he thought about his independent, often-quiet daughter living with these tiny whirlwinds.
Christopher and Ashley were in a dead heat for the stairs, only breaking their stride when they heard a firm “Walk, please,” from their mother.
Aaron had lingered behind. “I wanna walk with Grandpa,” he stated as he pinned Howard with hopeful pale eyes. “Can… I mean, may I?”
Confused, Howard looked over his shoulder at Frank. “I don’t mind if—”
“Daddy,” Lauren interrupted gently. “I think he means you.” When she saw the panicky, stunned look on her father’s face, her heart leapt into her throat and she decided then and there that if he said something to hurt that little boy’s feelings she wouldn’t be responsible for her actions.
Dev’s grip on her coffee cup tightened to almost a painful degree.
Everyone held their breath as Howard blinked stupidly. “I… um…”
Aaron looked around at all the expectant adult faces. “What’s wrong? I’ll hold his hand and won’t get lost,” he added, sure that was the problem. “Please?”
Howard found his head bobbing, and before he had time to even think about what he was doing he heard himself say, “Sure, son. You can walk with me if you like. I’ll…” Self-consciously, he cleared his throat. “I’ll hold your hand.”
Devlyn looked up from her son to find two sets of glassy gray eyes locked on each other, something indefinable and profound passing between them. This, she thought happily, is turning into such a damn wonderful day.
“Great!” Aaron enthused. On the way out of the room he threw his arms around Howard’s thighs and gave him an impressively strong hug. “Be right back!” Then he bolted.
When the kids were out of the room, Lauren wordlessly approached her father. On tiptoes she bussed his cheek, feeling the short stubble that was always present by early evening. “Thank you, Daddy.”
A smile flickered on Howard’s face for just a few seconds, then his normal gruff expression slid firmly back into place. Unseen by Lauren, he lifted his arm a few inches, as though he might slip it around her shoulders.
Dev sucked in a hopeful breath, but then watched in disappointment as Howard lowered his arm. Something had stopped him. Perhaps he had felt the weight of her stare or maybe the realization that he had a place in this family if he wanted one was suddenly too much. Instead, and a little awkwardly, he patted Lauren’s arm.
Dev’s forehead puckered in response. You’ve got to crawl before you can run, she reminded herself. Baby steps.
Lauren had just seen her father off and made her way back to the comfortable guest bedroom she and Devlyn shared while visiting the Marlowes. It had been a long day. Howard Strayer had booked his return flight on that night’s red-eye, and he insisted on getting there the full three hours before that was required for domestic flights.
Thanksgiving with her father had gone both better and worse than she’d expected. Her father seemed to be nearly comfortable around Frank and Janet, something she made a mental note to ask Devlyn about later. And she could tell the children had made sizeable headway into wiggling their way into his heart.
Lauren sighed. Then there was Devlyn. As the evening wore on, it became clear that though her father would remain polite, he would also do his level best to steer clear of her spouse. She could tell that bothered Dev, and she made another mental note to add a few extra kisses of reassurance to make it clear that the problem lay not in Dev but in her and her father’s relationship as a whole. Still, when all was said and done, it hadn’t been unpleasant, and nobody had ended up being shot by the Secret Service or in a fistfight. Norman Rockwell, it wasn’t, but it could have gone worse.
Their walk had been uneventful but nice. They shared remembrances of the few close moments they’d had as a family, and for the first time Lauren had been able to look beyond the gruff exterior of her mostly-absentee father and see a still-grieving husband. And it made her think.
She pulled over the box her father had left for her and undid the top, wondering what was inside. Lauren didn’t have to wonder for long, and a wistful smile touched her lips when she saw the first item inside.
“You sure you don’t want the cabin for the night?”
“Nah,” Dev said, passing over Beth’s coat. “The kids are watching a movie with Dad in the family room. They’ll fall asleep in no time and I promised that we’d spend the holiday together. So it’s easier to keep them here than carry their little carcasses to the cabin.”
Beth laughed and shrugged into her coat, looking forward to a short walk in the cold night air. Now all she needed was David, and she spotted him approaching over Dev’s shoulder. “Shit.” Beth closed her eyes. He was carrying his cell phone and was scowling.
Dev looked behind her and then caught sight of the phone and groaned.
“I’m sorry, Dev,” David said. “There’s been a development in the Middle East negotiations.” He gave his wife a contrite look.
“Let me guess. Hmm…” Dev tapped her temple like an oracle ready to announce her prediction. “Secretary of State Ortiz’s presence this weekend at Camp David is not enough. Monday isn’t near soon enough for my presence there either. You want me there now,” Dev accused bluntly.
David fought the urge to sink into the floor. “It’s not just me, Dev.” He steeled himself as he turned to face Beth. “Can you excuse us for a minute?”
For a few seconds, Beth didn’t say a word. She was on the verge of taking David to task when she reminded herself about the realities of a life she went into with her eyes wide open. Her gaze fell to the floor and she drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly and ending with a sigh. “Sure. I’ll take out the dogs.”
Beth and David’s pugly was currently wreaking havoc in a DC kennel. But the Marlowe children couldn’t bear to be separated from their pets when they traveled, and so the First Dogs were lying along one of the foyer walls, taking in the human activity with uninterested, coal-black eyes. “Outside?” Beth asked in a deceptively perky voice, considering her sullen mood.
Princess jumped to her feet and scurried to the door, bouncing at least three feet high with every excited leap like a deranged yo-yo. Her mate rose slowly, leaning forward, first on his front legs to stretch his back, then yawning and showing his crooked teeth and leaning backwards in another long stretch.
Beth lifted an eyebrow. “If you’re through?” she teased and smiled a little when the pug lifted his flat nose into the air as he passed Devlyn, refusing to give her the time of day.
Dev’s lips curled into a sneer and she bared her teeth and glared at her 20-pound nemesis.
Beth rolled her eyes at the President as she opened the door and headed out into the night. Over her shoulder she chuckled, “If the press ever catch you making that face, Devil, it’ll be the picture of you that makes the cover of Time Magazine.”
“Very funny,” Dev shot back, unable to keep from smiling. When the door shut again, she was all business. She squared her shoulders and took a step closer to David so that they could lower their voices to just above a whisper. “You’ve got about 30 seconds until that portly demon dog decides it’s too cold to be outside and they come back. So you’d better talk fast and make it good.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
David swallowed hard, then launched into a retelling of the briefing he’d been given only moments earlier.
Lauren was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with several items spread out on the floor around her, when Devlyn poked her head inside the bedroom door. She smiled. “Where have you been? I thought you were coming up as soon as you got the kids settled with your dad and said goodnight to Beth and David?” She glanced at the clock. “That was over an hour and a half ago.”
“What’s all this?” Dev gestured to the items surrounding her wife.
“Just a few things my dad brought me. I can show you in a minute. But first,” she paused and gave Dev a direct look, easily sensing that something had happened. “You didn’t answer my question. Where were you?”
Without looking at Lauren, Dev shut the door and padded slowly to the bed. “Something’s come up.”
Two fair eyebrows rose. “Okay,” she drew the word out slowly. “Something serious?”
Dev sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Yes.”
Lauren bit her tongue for a moment, her heart sinking. She sighed resignedly, already wondering what they would tell the children. “When are we leaving?”
The corner of Dev’s mouth twitched. “Sunday.”
Lauren blinked. “But weren’t we already leaving then?”
A full smile eased across Dev’s face. “Yes and no. We were all flying out Sunday evening. Now I’ll be leaving at an obscene hour that morning and going directly to Abu Dhabi without the Sunday night stop in Camp David I had planned. Sheik Yousif and King Qasem had a major falling out today. At the moment, negotiations are up in the air.”
Lauren took a moment to digest this. She knew how important these intense and usually untimely negotiations were to Devlyn. They were requiring more and more of the President’s time, though, to her credit, Dev was on the verge of several preliminary, but substantial, breakthroughs. “Jared’s in over his head?” She joined Devlyn on the foot of the bed, sitting so close their thighs were touching.
Dev shook her head. “Secretary of State Ortiz is smart as hell, but sometimes these things can’t be avoided. I think he’s doing pretty damn good, especially when you remember that the man has spent the last few days in hell-negotiations and 105 degree heat to boot, instead of eating turkey with his wife and son back in Nebraska.” She leaned back on the bed and braced herself on her palms. “Ortiz talked the men into tabling their argument overnight, hoping to give things a chance to cool down a little. But when 7 a.m. Abu Dhabi time rolled around, neither Yousif nor Qasem bothered to show up for the early session.”
“Things sound like they’re in a mess! How did you avoid having to go right now?”
Dev shrugged. “I told David no.”
Lauren was at a loss. “God, Devlyn.” She shook her head a little, not believing she was about to say this. “Are you sure you shouldn’t go? I mean, if the negotiations are really on the line. Or—”
“It’s okay.” Dev smiled gently and leaned forward to brush her lips against Lauren’s. “Thank you for understanding; that means a lot to me. But we’re doing something else instead.”
“So you’re not going to ride in on a white horse and save the day? I loved the movie Lawrence of Arabia when I was a kid.” Affectionately, she brushed her knuckles across Dev’s cheek. “You’ve got the eyes for the part.” Her voice dropped an octave. “And you look great on horseback,” she purred, giving Dev a hungry look.
Dev gulped, and Lauren smiled wickedly at the blush creeping up the dark-haired woman’s neck.
A little flustered, Devlyn cleared her throat. “Umm… What were we talking about?”
“Abu Dhabi,” Lauren reminded her innocently.
“Oh, yeah, Abu Dhabi.” Her eyes dropped to Lauren’s mouth. The younger woman slowly licked her lips, and Dev’s nostrils flared in pure reaction.
“Yeah?” Dev said absently.
Dev’s eyes snapped up to meet Lauren’s and the younger woman read a touch of embarrassment there, along with naked desire. “Are you going to stop torturing me long enough for me to tell you?”
“Sweet Jesus, were you always this responsive?” Lauren wondered aloud, a little amazed at the instant and powerful longing now coursing through her.
Dev laughed. “Of course! It just used to make you blush.”
Lauren bit her lower lip and chuckled soundlessly. “Oh, yeah. I think I’m getting over that now, Devlyn.”
The corner of Dev’s mouth curled drolly. “No, really?”
“I’ll be good, I swear. I am interested,” Lauren promised. “It’s really your fault, you know. If you weren’t so beautiful I wouldn’t get distracted. But,” she squared her shoulders, “I can control myself.” A beat. “If you don’t take too long.” She winked. “Please continue.”
Dev gave her a look asking whether or not she was serious, and Lauren crossed her heart. But in truth, she didn’t mind a bit. It was comforting to be reminded in a very pleasant way that even critical issues didn’t always have to become personal traumas. They couldn’t. “I told Ortiz to go back to the embassy and take the next few days off.”
A spark lit Dev’s eyes and her voice held the no-nonsense timbre that Lauren always associated with her at her most compelling.
Dev said, “If everyone can’t play nice, then I don’t want my people wasting their time.” The fire behind her words dimmed as quickly as it had flamed, as Dev seemed to recall that she wasn’t at work. Her expression lightened. “That is why I’m not leaving today, but will just be leaving a little early.”
Lauren’s eyes widened. “Will that work to get these guys back to the negotiating table?”
Dev chuckled. “Nope. But they’ll stop being pissed off at each other long enough to be mad at me. And if negotiations are suspended, then hopefully they won’t say anything to each other to make things any worse. It’s pretty much a win, win situation.” Her grin split her face. “And I’ll still get to spend most of vacation with my family,” she finished proudly.
Lauren nodded, clearly impressed. “Wow.” She gave Devlyn a sound kiss on the mouth, making it crystal clear just how much she appreciated this and the many smaller adjustments Devlyn had made to her life in deference to her doctors, her family, but mostly for Lauren herself. And the younger woman knew it. She tugged affectionately on Dev’s shirt. “You came up with this in the last hour?”
“Well,” Dev sniffed. “I am the President.”
Lauren flopped back on the bed, her smile crinkling her nose and the corners of her eyes. “You’re more than that to me.”
Dev crawled on top of her, straddling her to pin her to the bed. “Now,” she growled and temporarily forgot what she was going to say, dipping her head for a fiery but playful kiss. Which Lauren deepened instantly, drawing a throaty groan from Dev.
After a few leisurely moments, Devlyn pulled away with a loud smack, smiling at Lauren’s protesting moan. Two could play at that game. “Now tell me what’s in the box. Tell me, tell me, tell me!”
Lauren lifted her head to kiss Dev’s chin, then she gave it a gentle nibble. “And here I thought Curious George was just fiction. Forget the box and kiss me again.”
“Lauren!” Dev grabbed Lauren’s shoulders and began bouncing both women loudly against the mattress. “I’ve… been waiting—”
Lauren yelped, then burst into helpless laughter as they flopped wildly against the bed like fish tossed onto the shore.
“And waiting, and waiting. All day! I can’t wait any more! It’s killing me.” Devlyn stared at her partner, who was laughing so hard that she was shaking Devlyn every bit as much as she was being shaken. “It’s not funny!” she protested.
“Stop… Stop!” Lauren squealed between gasps, her face brick red. “We’re going to br- br- break the bed!”
Dev stopped bouncing and dropped limply atop Lauren, her weight causing every bit of air to exit the blonde’s lungs in an enormous gust. “So you’ll show me, right?” Dev asked calmly.
Lauren sucked in a big breath, then spluttered, “I- I-think I’d better.”
Dev let loose a sunny smile. “Good.” Sweetly, she kissed a very pink cheek and scampered off the bed and onto the floor.
Lauren shook her head and chuckled, amazed as always at the contrast between the devastatingly effective politician and the boisterous playmate that Devlyn could sometimes be. That beloved playmate had been largely absent these past six months, and Lauren was glad beyond words to see the slow but steady return of her long-absent friend. She closed her eyes and said a small prayer of thanks. It was about time.
“Oooo… is that you?” came the disembodied voice from the floor.
Lauren spun around and crawled to the foot of the bed, resting her head on her hands as she peered over the edge to find Devlyn holding up a photograph of her as a child. She wrinkled her face. “Ummm…” For a second, Lauren was tempted to lie.
“You were precious!” Dev couldn’t help but grin at the tiny blonde with braids, grass-stained cut-off denim overalls, and two skinned knees. But probably most endearing of all was the tattered book Dev could see in her hand. It was just so Lauren. “I could just hug you to death. Oh, and your front teeth are missing,” she commented enthusiastically, her eyes riveted to the picture.
“Only someone who loves me could think I look adorable in that picture,” Lauren said wryly. “I look like a cross between an egghead and a ragamuffin.”
Dev reached over and fondly ran fingers through Lauren’s wavy locks. “You were perfect.”
“I’m glad you think so, because there are several equally horrific photographs in there. And there’s one from my first date that you should get a look at now, because I’m burning it the first chance I get.”
“You most certainly are not! You’ll be lucky if I don’t have it blown up to life size, framed, and put on display for the White House tours.”
Lauren sucked in a breath. “You’re pure evil!”
Dev merely snickered before returning her attention to the small pile of items that had been unloaded from the box. “What is all this?”
“Some things of Mama’s.” Lauren was quiet for a moment as she reflected. “I didn’t know she had most of this stuff. Daddy thought I might want it. I guess he finally decided to go through some of the stuff in their bedroom and pack some things away.”
Dev's expression turned serious. “That’s not an easy thing to do,” she admitted, leaning back against the foot of the bed.
“No,” Lauren said soberly. “It wouldn’t be.”
Eager to regain some of the joy from just a moment earlier, Dev set down the photograph and picked up one of Lauren’s Adrian Nash novels. “This is your first, right?”
Lauren nodded, a gentle though bittersweet smile returning. “I was so proud. I sent her and Daddy a copy right away.”
“She kept it for a long time,” Devlyn pointed out, her finger tracing the author’s name emblazoned in shiny gold letters.
Lauren reached for the book and opened it, hearing the spine crack loudly. She let out a deep breath. “She kept it but never read it.” She shrugged a little and passed the book back. “I guess that’s still something.”
Devlyn looked away, unwilling for Lauren to read the anger she was sure showed plainly on her face. Some people aren’t fit to raise a pet, she thought harshly. Much less a child. “What else do we have here?”
Lauren set the book down, then pointed to a small white box. “That was my mom’s bracelet.”
Dev opened the box and lifted the delicate gold chain, its links sparkling softly in the light.
“She wore it whenever she got dressed up. It was her mother’s.”
“Mmm…” The slender links felt cool in Dev’s hand. “It’s pretty.”
Lauren’s brow furrowed as she looked at the simple but well-maintained piece of jewelry. She wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t have the slightest urge to wear it herself. Ever. But the idea of simply throwing it away was equally unacceptable. “I think I’ll give it to Ashley.”
Dev blinked. “Are you sure—?”
Lauren shrugged lightly, though she felt a little nervous when she said, “It would look silly on one of the boys, and she’s the only daughter I have, right?”
Their eyes met and held, and Dev thought she might melt into a puddle then and there. She had to swallow thickly before she could speak. “Absolutely,” she murmured finally, noting the gray eyes so near to hers were now shining brightly. “She’ll be proud to—” the sound of pounding footsteps caused her to pause.
The bedroom door flew open and three screaming, pajama-clad children ran inside and pounced on the bed, all of them scrambling madly to get under the covers. Christopher nearly knocked Lauren to the floor in his haste, but stopped long enough for a quick, “Sorry, Mama.”
Devlyn jumped to her feet. “Hey! What’s going on?” She helped Lauren off the foot of the bed, and they turned to see the blanket and the three lumps beneath it shaking like leaves in the wind.
“We’re afraid!” Ashley squealed, terrified. “He’ll get us in our sleep!”
Christopher and Aaron screamed at their sister’s words and Lauren and Dev just looked at each other. The women each moved to opposite sides of the bed and lifted the blankets back, cringing as more screams nearly pierced their eardrums.
“Shhh!” Dev told them. “What on earth is wrong? Who is coming for you?”
“Don’t let him get us,” Aaron begged. “Pleeeeeeeze.” He climbed into Lauren’s lap and held on for dear life.
“Wh—?” Lauren only shrugged at Devlyn, having no idea what was happened. She pressed her lips to Aaron’s hair and kissed him firmly. “I would never let anyone get you,” she swore. “And… um… Gremlin will protect you, too.”
Upon hearing Lauren’s declaration, both Ashley and Christopher scrambled over to Lauren and pressed themselves against the shocked woman. Their mother might be bigger, but Lauren had just promised her protection, and Gremlin had pointy teeth and breath ferocious enough to slay most anything. Their mother had said that last part, many, many times.
“What is going on?” Dev demanded, taking care to set Lauren’s mother’s bracelet on the nightstand.
“CHUCKY!” the children cried in unison.
“He has a knife dripping blood,” Ashley added, her face pale.
Just then, a very sheepish and disheveled Frank Marlowe poked his head into the bedroom. Only his eyes were visible around the door.
Dev arched a sharp eyebrow at her father. “Why don’t I remember someone named Chucky and a blood-dripping knife in the movie Bambi?”
“Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” Frank stumbled into the room behind Janet, who dragged the tall man the rest of the way into the room by his ear.
“Explain yourself, old man,” Janet said crossly, finally letting go of Frank’s ear.
Lauren looked on with wide eyes. “Uh oh,” she mumbled, very glad that she hadn’t done anything to make Janet angry.
Only the faint beams from a silvery moon lighted the room. The children were sound asleep and plastered against Lauren and Dev, the mass of sweaty bodies sticking together.
“How could he do that?” Dev whispered into the dark. She could tell Lauren was awake by the absence of the gentle snores that were now as familiar to Devlyn as her own scent. And though she couldn’t see her, she was sure her body was among the mass under the extra blankets the children had insisted they needed. “How could he fall asleep and not disable the voice controls on the television? He could never trust me when I was a child,” she continued harshly. “What fool would trust these devil children?”
Lauren sighed and unstuck Ashley’s arm from the side of her face, grimacing at the trickle of sweat that trailed down her own throat. “Ugh. I don’t know. But I’m burning up,” she whispered back, still a little grumpy that her plans to ravage her wife had gone up in smoke. “I think you should have let Janet take the wooden spoon to him.”
Dev’s chuckles shook the bed. “Don’t worry, he’s getting his just desserts.”
Lauren smiled in the dark. “I don’t doubt that. Did you see his face when Janet told him it was time for bed? He didn’t want to go with her.”
Both women giggled.
“Think we can escape without them knowing?” Lauren shifted a little, able to peel Christopher’s leg from hers. “They’re dead the to the world.”
Dev nodded. “Yeah. But we’ve got to be careful. If we move around too much, one of them will think Chucky is after them and wake up the entire house,” she whispered. “If we’re lucky we can crash in the boys’ room.”
“I still have no idea who Chucky is,” Lauren told her, continuing to untangle herself. “A knife-wielding doll sounds more ridiculous than scary.”
“Oh, no. It’s freaky beyond belief.” Dev whimpered a little just remembering. “I saw it on cable television when I was about Ashley’s age. I didn’t sleep for weeks and I couldn’t look at a doll for months. Maybe years.”
“Why in the world did your parents let you watch something like that?” Lauren held her breath as she crawled completely out of bed. The wooden floors felt so cool that she sprawled out on her belly and hummed in pure relief. She turned her head when Dev joined her on the floor.
The President lifted her shirt to feel the cool wooden slats against her back. “They didn’t let me, you goof.”
“Let me guess…”
“Yup, Dad fell asleep in front of Matlock while Mom was upstairs reading. The remote was mine!”
Lauren laughed softly. “How long were you grounded for?”
“The same amount of time that the kids will be grounded for.” With a light groan, Dev pushed herself to her feet and offered Lauren a hand up. They both stepped over the soundly sleeping guard dogs on the way to the boys’ room.
“And how long was that?” Lauren asked.
“Well, technically I’m still grounded.” Devlyn kept hold of Lauren’s hand as they traversed the dark hallway. “But don’t remind Mom, okay?”
Lauren wrapped her arm around Dev’s waist and squeezed. “It’ll be our little secret.”
“Chucky was just horrible,” Dev commented after a minute. “Horrible.”
“You don’t have to worry, I’ll protect you.” Lauren laughed.
“Very funny.” A pause. “Promise?”
Lauren’s sparkling grin pierced the night. “Absolutely.”
Back to the Academy